Any gamer who has been playing games since the 1980s is probably aware of the Milton Bradley Gamemaster Series of games, as are many gamers who have started hobby gaming since. In fact, these games were how many of us came into the hobby (this author included). Only two remain readily available to this day, the classic Axis & Allies and Shogun (a.k.a. Samurai Swords), but their popularity among gamers endures—the other three that are out-of-print fetch high prices on eBay, and are becoming increasingly hard to get even there.
So what are these games like, and why are they so popular?
To answer the first part of that question, I think it is safe to say that the Milton Bradley Gamemaster games were the very definition of the term "light wargame". The goal of 4 of the 5 (not including the smaller-scale Broadsides & Boarding Parties) was military conquest of a particular area or areas on the board's map. At set-up, each player was given a set amount of military pieces in a particular area, and then expected to move these pieces into other areas, which if held by your enemy was an attack (this a mechanism known as area-impulse). The victor then controlled this disputed area, and if you won enough of these attacks, you could be expected to meet the game's objective of taking the most territories, or certain special "capital" territories, etc. depending on the game. Battles are fought with dice, with each different military piece featured in the game having a greater or lesser ability to inflict damage (or vulnerability, in the case of Conquest of the Empire).
That's the meat of these wargames; supplementing the dice-rattling combat were the other auxiliary activities in a player's turn: moving pieces or reinforcement (as in Risk), buying units, and placing new units (this sequence was different from game to game). Like many or most other games, turns were "you go, then I go" (although Shogun would allow players to bid for turn order after a round of turns was complete). Somewhat standard stuff, right? Milton Bradley was intent on making these games low complexity (in comparison to the often byzantine SPI and Avalon Hill titles of that day), and when they hired designer Larry Harris to re-develop Axis & Allies, Broadsides & Boarding Parties, and what would be Conquest of the Empire (previously published as VI Caesars), important changes were made to make the games simpler and straightforward.
But what made Milton Bradley's Gamemaster Series so impressive was the quality of the components, the scale of which had not been seen in games before. Axis & Allies, and then its brothers, featured hundreds of detailed plastic playing pieces—giving the gamer the fun of playing with toy soldiers again. Not only this, but the Gamemaster Series games maintained this high quality with big, colorful mounted boards, laminated cards, and graphically interesting reference playing aids.
So, let's talk about the individual games, in chronological order of when Milton Bradley released them:
Axis & Allies (1984)
The original game of Milton Bradley's Gamemaster Series, Axis & Allies proved to be a huge hit because of a number of wonderful features which had not been seen before on the mass market:
- Hundreds of detailed plastic playing pieces, including molded soldiers, tanks, planes, ships, antiaircraft guns, and factories. Certainly there had been games with cool "bits" prior to this, but not on this scale.
- A colorful, sprawling gameboard depicting the world at war in 1942. Mainstream gamers had seen a world map gameboard before with Risk, but now they could "get their hands dirty" in a game lightly representing a historical situation. This was not the folded paper terrain map divided into hexes of the conflict simulation hobby, but an interesting and eye-catching component of a game.
- A fairly simple rules system that could take "tweaking", and still provide the players with a fun and balanced game. You could alter rules on the offensive or defensive capabilities of pieces, add new pieces such as destroyers or cruisers, where and how you could build industrial complexes, whatever, the system could take it. There are scores of variants for Axis & Allies out there, and some have even been published and sold. Some rule changes are so ubiquitous among Axis & Allies players, they've become canon (does anyone not play with the "No Russian first round attack" rule?).
- A setup that encouraged tactical tabletalk among players to defeat their enemies—this last aspect of Axis & Allies was particularly fun and exciting, and while not original with Axis & Allies, the game's popularity introduced many budding gamers to group strategy and "huddling" during the playing of a board game. In this regard, what's great about Axis & Allies is that there are so many possible strategies to employ as either team, and legions of fans who will argue why "their" strategy is the best. Beginners and experts alike all get ideas, and must work with their teammates in order to test them best.
Axis & Allies is still quite popular and continues to sell well. However, it continues to receive criticism from many in the wargaming community because it is not realistic in its handling of combat, reinforcements, or movement, nor is it "true" to the WWII global situation. Indeed, on the whole, it is not a clear picture of WWII grand strategy and tactics, but then again, it was not designed to be. What Axis & Allies is, though, is an attempt to make a big, balanced game out of an idea as to what both the Axis' and Allies' location, capabilities, and objectives were during World War II. It has succeeded as an incredibly addictive game, and one that, as grognards might like to know, has led many gamers to more complex and detailed wargaming pursuits (including this author).
I would be errant if I did not also note that the success of Axis & Allies was not forgotten. Sometime during the 1980s or 90s, Hasbro acquired Milton Bradley, and in 1999, under its Avalon Hill brand name, published Axis & Allies: Europe, designed by the original designer of Axis & Allies himself, Larry Harris. This was followed in 2001 by Axis & Allies: Pacific, based on the Pacific theater and featuring a way for Japan to win through accumulating victory points. Harris described Axis & Allies: Europe as "a whole new puzzle to solve", which is true of Axis & Allies: Pacific as well. The level of detail in both is increased from the regular Axis & Allies, which adds more than just the appearance of WWII realism. The one downside is that now Germany or Japan face hostility alone—which means only one team can engage in glorious tabletalk—but if you like going it alone, or have problems convincing teammates to do your plan at times, then that may not be a drawback for you.
Conquest of the Empire (1984)
Also a Larry Harris design, and originally published as VI Caesars by a small Connecticut game company called Citadel, Conquest of the Empire took all of the features that made Axis & Allies so popular (and that are enumerated above), and transplanted them to the Roman Empire, imagining a situation in the chaotic time after the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 AD), whereby six pretenders to the title of Caesar struggle against each other to be "the man" in Rome. Though nothing like this happened, it's fun to imagine the player who starts from Egyptus being a descendant of Cleopatra, the Numidian player a "New Carthaginian", and the Italian player a current, weak Caeasar. I'm getting ahead of myself, but add possible contenders from Galatia, Macedonia, and Hispania, and you have the six Caesar-wannabes. With fewer players there are accordingly, fewer players—with a possible minimum of two (a contender from Hispania and a contender from Egyptus).
Like Axis & Allies, the board and pieces are beautiful, with detailed (and kind of fragile) legionnaires, cavalry soldiers, catapults, cities, galleys, generals, and Caesars. Unlike Axis & Allies, not all of these pieces are marked by color—instead, players use a generic pool for the infantry, cavalry, catapults, and cities.
All troops must be led either by a general or your caesar (but don't lose him). Building cities allows you to collect more tribute, and allows you to hook up your provinces to facilitate quick movement (one of the neater parts of the game—you can move from Asia Minor to Carthage in one turn, thanks to those roads). A turn consists of movement, combat, purchasing, then placing your units (always in your home capitol). Combat is handled through targeting a unit in your opponent's force, then rolling a die. The presence of a catapult or fortified city may allow you to hit that target better, a feature called "combat advantage".
Also, any time you defeat another force, you capture the opponent's generals involved. You can either trade them back for your own, trade them with other players, ransom them for exorbitant sums or military/political arrangements, or brutally execute them. Frankly, it may be this particular element of Conquest of the Empire that has proved most enjoyable. There's nothing like the sadistic delight in kicking a guy when he's down: say I acquire three of your generals through victories and a trade. Not only are you injured, but seeing your guys face down in my capital adds insult, and then if I execute them all, you're crippled and on the verge of immobility.
That's it. So, like Axis & Allies, Conquest of the Empire features a flexible rules system that be can tinkered with, without damaging the game as developed by Milton Bradley. Actually, such tinkering is recommended in order to remedy the "catapults problem" familiar to long-time players of Conquest of the Empire. To those not familiar with the game, let me explain the problem in a nutshell: if you have more catapults than your opponent, then for each catapult, your enemies targets become a "pip" (of the dice) easier to hit (so, about 16% easier). The game degenerates into a contest to whoever can accumulate the most catapults first, that then (because they themselves are hard to hit) can roam around Europe like Roman tanks. There a number of excellent fixes to this problem, but the downside to most of them, is that they can lengthen the game, which already can stretch out over 5 to 6 hours if you're playing with a full component of players. Even still, I won't play without Mike Montesa's "fragile catapult" rule, which makes your catapults easy to hit unless they're accompanied by infantry or cavalry.
One of the other most enjoyable features of Conquest of the Empire is the table talk, which, given the "only one can win" victory condition, takes on much more of a Diplomacy feel. Deals are made, and broken. Whoever sacks another's capital and takes his Caesar gets a big bonus from the bank to boot, so treachery can often pay well.
Getting paid well for taking over an opponent (and thus all his territory) can stick it to your other enemies pretty nicely, too: once a player is at 100 talents of tribute collected, inflation is triggered, doubling the prices as soon as your turn is done. But beware! If you trigger inflation, there's no way to set it back, and if your income falls, tough luck, pal—now you're all still stuck with the awful new prices. At 200 talents of tribute, triple inflation can be triggered. Ouch!
So winning this game, not only requires sound strategy, but careful negotiation with all of your rivals, and a watchful eye on the economic situation. I can't stress how fun this in the execution—and now you know why Conquest of the Empire goes for so much on eBay. In this regard, it is probably the most valuable game I own, but even if it were as ubiquitous (and cheap) as Uno, I would still consider it a gem of my cabinet.
Broadsides & Boarding Parties (1984)
The origins of this 2-player entry in the Gamemaster Series seem to be a bit murkier than Axis & Allies and Conquest of the Empire. A wargame collector known as the Gamester indicates that it is indeed another Larry Harris design that he brought with him when hired by Milton Bradley to develop the Gamemaster Series games. The Gamester has a picture on his "Gamemaster Series" page of his website of an earlier (pre-Milton Bradley) 1982 edition; I'm not sure if this was published by Citadel or perhaps Heritage. Anyway, along with Axis & Allies and Conquest of the Empire, Broadsides & Boarding Parties is one of the original three games in the Gamemaster Series. 1984 was a good year for light wargames!
I received Broadsides & Boarding Parties for Christmas in '86; it was the fourth game I got in the Gamemaster series (I got Shogun, later re-named Samurai Swords, earlier the same morning). However, after trying it out once or twice, it sat in the closet for a long, long time (I don't think it got played once in a stretch of 15 years).
Why? Because Broadsides & Boarding Parties, although it has great components like its Milton Bradley brothers, including a gorgeous gameboard and big plastic ships, is not that fun. It's a two player duel, between a Spanish galleon and a pirate ship (equal in staff and ability), with the object of the game being to destroy the other (no running from this fight). Players navigate their ships by card play; cards are Turn Right, Turn Left, Move Forward, and Stay Still (there's also Damage cards which you must play in place of a movement card if you're hit). Three cards per turn, and they're revealed simultaneously. After each card, you can fire the cannons (roll dice). Depending on the angle, you may be able to roll 2,5, or 0 cannons. If you plot your ships together, they collide and go into the "Boarding Parties" phase of the game. This part is disappointing. Crew members move around on the ships and fight each other by rolling dice, but the outcome feels horribly random (because it largely is).
I'm something of a pack rat; it's hard for me to part with a game, especially one with beautiful components like this. My typical approach, would be to try and develop a workable variant, rather than re-sell it. However, when I saw how much Broadsides & Boarding Parties commands on eBay (games with all the components go for well over $100), I sold mine, figuring in return for a game that might work with a variant, I could get four games that don't need them.
Fortress America (1986)
Like the other Gamemaster Series games, and like most "big company" games, Fortress America's components give no clue as to who designed or developed the game. The concept of the game—the invasion of the 48 contiguous states from the east, south, and west)—seems to have been lifted from SPI's Invasion America, which itself is certainly a product of futuristic novels reflecting a popular American nightmare of the Cold War. Ralph Boerke, at his web page devoted to the Gamemaster Series, quotes from correspondence with Lee Enderlin, the marketing director of the long-dead Nova Games. Enderlin indicates that Mike Gray (a Milton Bradley, now Hasbro, executive) was the designer of Fortress America and Shogun. Given its remarkable similarity to SPI's Invasion: America, though, "development" might be a better description of Gray's work on the game at Milton Bradley.
One player takes the role of the beleaguered Americans, the other(s) the part of one or more invaders. Invaders start from "landing zones" in Mexico or on the ocean shores (part of the backstory is that the U.S. Navy was reduced to a skeleton crew and easily defeated). The objective of the U.S. player is to stay alive; the objective of the invaders is to capture and hold 18 American cities until the end of one turn (so that the U.S. player has a chance to come back). Like Axis & Allies, Fortress America's setup features unequal forces. The invaders each start with a third of their forces on the board, and get the rest over the next several turns. Once they're done, though, they're done; there's no way of "buying" reinforcements or otherwise replacing lost units. The Americans start off with a skeleton crew, but as the game goes on, they get reinforcements (two cards from a deck indicating what units and where they can be placed) and one more laser attack per turn. The lasers are a "free shot" against the invaders; the effect is cumulative, thus providing a sort of time limit to the game.
Fortress America usually plays out with a "high tide" for the invaders, at which point they've captured 15 or 16 cities, have tapped their reinforcements, and are now struggling for just a few more cities. Making their task more difficult is an interesting game device: each invading unit has to be able to trace a path through friendly territory back to an invading zone of its color at the end of its turn. "Stranded" units are destroyed. The invaders' task is daunting, and I've never seen it done without very careful thinking on the part of the invader player(s), and some luck.
Is it fun? Personally, I find it just as fun as Axis & Allies. In both games, if you're the Americans, you're faced with stemming the tide of totalitarian forces, and then rolling them back. If you're the "bad guys", you get to experience the joy of crushing your enemies early on, and then surf the brink of destruction as you race against time to dominate. Choosing a particularly strategic location and then attacking it with combined arms (for which the attacker gets a bonus) is not only good gameplay, but it conjures up vivid, cinematic images when you think about where the map location corresponds to reality—you can see your bombers and hovertanks swooping in on the enemy in the Grand Canyon, or near Devil's Tower, Wyoming, or just outside Atlanta. Fortress America is the now that never was; I wonder if other longtime owners of the game have found it interesting how one's perspective of the events it depicts has changed so dramatically.
I suppose no discussion of Fortress America is complete without mentioning the "Saddam Hussein cover" issue. What this refers to is that Milton Bradley apparently changed the appearance of one of the faces displayed on the box's cover—which looks strikingly similar to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. At some point, this was changed, and the face got a big pair of sunglasses, which hid this resemblance. There are eBay sellers who will tell you that the "Saddam" version is rare because Milton Bradley had to re-print it because it was controversial or some such thing. The former is almost certainly bogus, the reasoning also likely bogus. Here I will quote the Gamester, on his "Gamemaster Series" page:
Fortress America was already out of print before the Gulf War conflict started. The first ("Saddam") edition made its debut at Origins 1986, the subsequent ("Sunglasses") edition was released about a year latter (and *possibly* still distributed as late as 1988). Sales were poor by Milton Bradley's criteria, it seems the second edition may have been released only to supply those few areas that had run out of the original edition. And then MB called it quits on the title. The second edition was almost certainly of a smaller print run, personally I never saw the "Sunglasses" edition in any game or toy store, only in auctions and private sales after the game went OOP. I own 4 copies of the game, 3 are "Saddam" edition and 1 is the "Sunglasses" edition, and this is roughly the ratio of them I've seen in auctions and conventions ever since.
The Gamester then explains the U.S.-Iraq political situation from the time Fortress America was published, to the time it probably ended its distribution (1986-1988), and concludes:
Our national interest in Iraq was too lukewarm, the game art reference too obscure, the exposure level of the game too limited to explain who took offense and why the art was changed. IMO the appearance of the character and its clothing seemed to be of Latin American origin, not Middle Eastern, making the original connection possibly a coincidence... Its [sic] a complete mystery to me, all I can say for certain is the art change wasn't a result of the Gulf War, unless someone on Milton Bradley's staff was channeling Edgar Casey.
Of course, if you play a game of Fortress America nowadays, then that guy on the front is Saddam Hussein, leading the Republican guard into the U.S. on a mission of revenge.
Shogun, a.k.a. Samurai Swords (1986)
The last of the Gamemaster Series, and the only other one besides Axis & Allies that was at least successful enough to get a reprint, is Shogun. This reprint was done in 1995, and the game was re-named Samurai Swords, apparently because of some license-wrangling with novelist James Clavell's estate.
Shogun is set in feudal Japan, where rival warlords vie for the title of Shogun, and control of Japan. Each player has three daimyos, each of whom command a small army of samurai and peasants, and move about the more than three score provinces about Japan in an attempt to decimate their opponents. First to control a set number of provinces, or eliminate all of his opponents' daimyos, wins.
The game is played in rounds, with each player taking a turn within the round. Turn order is not set from round to round, however. Instead, at the beginning of the round, each player engages in blind bidding using a tray, money units called koku, and a screen, and allocate this koku among five different expenditures: Draw Swords, Build, Hire Ninja, Hire Ronin, or Levy Units. Shades of Risk here—players receive koku in proportion to the number of provinces they control, divided by three. Anyway, he who allocates the most koku to Draw Swords gets to pick his sword, of which there are 5, numbered 1 to 5, indicating place in the round. Ties are handled by the tied players coming to some sort of an agreement, or trying to draw the sword in contention, with the loser getting his pick of the remainder. This is a neat game device that allows a player who really wants to go first, perhaps beating others to the punch, or fleeing from powerful enemies, to do just that.
The ronin and ninja units are also interesting game elements. Ronin function as sneak attack units. When purchased, you take them from a common pool, take the card(s) out of your hand that match the province(s) where they will be deployed, and then set them down. When you attack or defend from that spot, reveal the ronin and add them to your side. They're only good for that turn, though, so be judicious!
As for the ninja, there's only one, and he goes to the highest bidder. If there is a tie, nobody gets him, and the koku is lost. Harsh, but then, the ninja is a powerful tool for wreaking havoc on your enemies. You can use him either to attempt to assassinate an opponent's daimyo (risky, and if you fail, he could try to take out one of yours), or you could use him to spy on an opponent's koku allocation for next turn (this can be a very deadly weapon when done right). I should add that the ninja piece is really evocative, too—painted black and poised to strike with dagger.
When you go to battle, you move your daimyo's armies into place, declare all your battles, fight, and then move into the province you've taken. Units not affiliated with any army can also fight, but won't be able to move beforehand. Shades of Risk redux—you can't leave a place unoccupied, but have to leave at least one unit behind. As daimyos fight and win, they gain experience, and with experience comes mobility and the ability to make more than one attack. With time, your daimyos are bounding over the board, striking, moving, and striking again. This is a neat feature of the game, and in my opinion, should happen sooner than the game provides for. Thankfully, when Hasbro did the reprint, they included some quick-start rules, including starting the daimyos at "2", meaning they can start by moving two provinces before attacking and can attack again if they can. This is definitely recommended. Mobile daimyos provide their players with more options and force their opponents to take their weak spots into deep consideration, and let's face it, isn't that what we want in our strategy games?
When it's set up, Shogun looks beautiful. Colorful plastic armies, some carrying little sticker banners, face each other on a board with clear lines and brilliant artwork on its margins. Each player's tray is screened off from their opponents with more art; the plastic swords add oodles of feudal ambience; the cards are durable and good quality. The Gamemaster Series' reputation for quality components is continued marvelously in this, the last game.
But Shogun has its issues. There are numerous fiddly rules that the other games tried to stay clear of—for example, ronin can never outnumber the total number of regular units in a province, bonus defenders obtained for having a castle cannot strike first with the others when defending against a naval invasion, daimyos' experience can only advance with "successful" attacks, which must meet three conditions, etc. It's hard to remember all these rules during gameplay, and although Samurai Swords did include a helpful "Rules to Remember" page at the back, the rulebook is not organized as well as it should be (someone posted the entire rulebook, optimally organized, at boardgamegeek.com, and I recommend perusing that resource instead). As well, initial setup is carefully prescribed, meticulous, and subject to players' "analysis paralysis" at points. The "Quick Start" rules are definitely recommended here, but it's wise to remember that "quick" is a relative term and there are still places where setup can get hung up.
This leads to what I feel is the reason Shogun doesn't come down from my shelf very often: it's too long for the fun it provides. Sure, Conquest of the Empire can be just as long, but I find it simply more fun in the playing. They both need true "quick setup" rules, they both feature player elimination (a stain among games), Conquest of the Empire has a tedious combat system and needs a rule fixing the "catapult problem"; even still, Conquest of the Empire is straightforward yet evocative, while I find Shogun to be chaotic and cumbersome. The fickleness of the dice becomes noticeable in all the Gamemaster Series games, but in Shogun, the dice, the blind bidding and the nomadic nature of one's power bases makes me feel like I'm surfing shifting sand. Negotiations in Shogun are almost exclusively over borders and "lines in the sand"; in Conquest of the Empire, captured generals and inflation-triggering become interesting bargaining chips that can benefit even the geographically disadvantaged player. You can't sack or bomb the snot out of someone's capitol in Shogun; you chase their weakened daimyos around, and hope you're the player who defeats the last one.
Perhaps I just need to play it more. That'll be hard, though; not only do I find more enjoyment in Conquest of the Empire, but the other two worthy entries, Axis & Allies and Fortress America, tend to be shorter, more dramatic, and don't eliminate players from the table. These days, as my time for these games is increasingly constrained by work and family, those are three factors that practically ensure Shogun will only rarely make it to the table.
The Gamemaster Series games, while disappointing to Milton Bradley at the time, are fondly remembered by Generation X'ers like me, so much so that they are now hot collector's items. For their time, they were unique—big and colorful games with cool plastic pieces; better than Risk, yet much more accessible than the cardboard-counter war simulation games. I was at their target age when they came out; my friends loved playing them and we had the time in those days to play multiple games. I can clearly remember the summer day in 1987 when I felt ready for more complexity and bought Avalon Hill's Gunslinger at a hobby shop. It looked great and I fell in love with it right away, but it was too much for my friends, and after some solitaire playings, it went to the bottom of one of my drawers, and it wasn't removed until last Christmas. Axis & Allies and Conquest of the Empire, on the other hand, followed me through high school to college and on to graduate school. I've even played them at my workplace with like-minded gamers. The Gamemaster Series games filled a void in the game community, enduring both the scoffs of the old-time SPI and Avalon Hill wargamers, and the strange looks of the average Joes and Janes who eye the big, beautiful boxes with derision and sadly think games are only for kids. The hours-long sessions of plotting, yelling, and dice rattling were all worth it. Have I moved on? Sure, I now own a number of German-style games and other true "classics", but I won't neglect or forget my old Milton Bradley friends when I feel the need to mobilize massive plastic forces for an assault.
Are there any heirs? Surely, if there's some sort of demand out there for games that can appeal to the plastic armchair general in all of us, there must be other games out there now, games that these great games have influenced? The Gamemaster Series does indeed have descendents, but that's a future article...
- Rob Burns